“Our hearts are with those in the front line, with those who get killed.”
– Georges Bernanos
It is said that when Georges Bernanos was asked why he became a writer, he answered quite plainly,”I began to write to escape from this disgusting era”. Alive for merely sixty years (1888-1948), the French Catholic Bernanos spent his life in Europe during the darkness of World War I and the Spanish Civil War . Subsequently, he endured the evisceration and emasculation of his homeland as an expatriate in South America during World War II. Serving in the blood-filled trenches of the Somme and Verdun, experiencing life-altering battle wounds, observing the disillusioning Franco cause in Spain and then lamenting the “spiritual exhaustion” of France at the hands of the Nazis gave credibility to his claim. Indeed, Bernanos lived in a “disgusting era”.
But for Bernanos, this era would not be without fruit. It would inspire novels and polemics from the fiery, passionate Frenchman such as Diary of a Country Priest, The Imposter, and Tradition of Freedom. These works were lauded for their keen insight into human nature and their zeal for faith and culture. He would be decorated with numerous French awards, asked to serve in the post-war de Gaulle government (he declined) and dubbed “the Bard of the French Resistance”. The words of Georges Bernanos simply resonated.
But why? Well, here is the thing about Georges Bernanos and his writing: Informed by the limitless violence and depravity that technological man was capable of in the 20th century, Bernanos brought two things into sharp, jarring relief: The Devil and the Saints. Bernanos’ works illustrated how the blackness of dark times remind us of the depths of evil there is in the world. But the light that pierces that blackness declares the inextinguishable good still to be found. The Prince of the World rules his domain with a relishing iron fist. But the Resistance is alive and well. No one tells this story better than Bernanos.
As biographer Peter Hebblethwaite would articulate,
“In spite of his sense of hell in our midst, Bernanos does not despair, because saints have existed and do exist. They are the living witnesses to the truths he holds. Christianity is not for him an ideology, but a life, begun in baptism, the incorporation into the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.”
Notably, Bernanos’ themes would consistently remind us of his characters’ (and our) membership in the Body of Christ.
We are made for communion with God and with one another. This is reassuring. But this is not the end. We are also “incorporated into the Passion of Christ”. Suffering is an unavoidable element in the lives of Bernanos’ characters (and in our lives). Sanctity comes at times through fiery purification just as precious metals emerge from the hottest furnace. Finally, Bernanos brings his characters (and reminds us) of the reward that ultimately awaits us. Grace. Bliss. Eternal Union with Christ.
And yet our vision in this dark age is blinded to the ultimate reward. Even seeing these Saints, we are inspired by their faith and courage, yet fearful that we too may be required to endure their unendurable suffering. Bernanos places these figures before us in stark and incomprehensible fashion to drive home a point. Hebblethwaite explains,
“Bernanos prefers to present his saints rather than to talk about sanctity, because otherwise he would run the risk of reducing Christianity to a delicately balanced conceptual system.”
In fact, Bernanos would assuredly agree with Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching,
“Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”
Sainthood is the highest calling as Bernanos would insist,
“You know what sanctity is: a vocation, a call. Where God awaits you, you must ascend, either that or you lose yourself.”
And this encounter – this incomparably brilliant relationship – with the Living Christ so overwhelms any hardship accompanied with it that the Saints seem to rush headlong into the privilege of suffering for it. It is not an act of calculation or a thoughtfully considered philosophy. It is a love affair for which one sacrifices his life for the Object of his undying affection. As one of Bernanos’ characters reminds,
“The mission of the Church is to discover the source of lost joy.”
The Saints within the Church discovered this Source of Lost Joy, insatiably wanted to spread it and acutely suffered the Devil’s slings and arrows for doing so. They found themselves baptized together, incorporated into the Passion, and brought gloriously to the Resurrection. For me, any time I want to become too comfortable in my half-hearted efforts at or reception of sanctity, any time I want to piously over-intellectualize my faith into an ideology instead of a personal relationship with Christ, I need to look at a picture of St. Joan of Arc, St. Peter, St. Thomas More, St. Maximilian Kolbe or read Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest…and be still.
As a final note, it is good that we hold fast to Georges Bernanos’ reminder,
“Our Church is the Church of the saints. If one approaches her with distrust, one sees only closed doors, barriers and fences, a sort of spiritual police force. But our Church is the Church of the saints. To become a saint, what bishop would not give up his ring, his mitre and his crozier; what cardinal his purple; what pope his white robe, his chamberlains, his Swiss Guard and all his temporal power? Who would not want to have the strength to embark on this wonderful adventure; it is indeed the only adventure.”
“It is indeed the only adventure.” Perhaps the most important thing Georges Bernanos taught me about Saints.